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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - We now know that the LeBron James sweepstakes is set to end Thursday night in prime time, but the NHL's biggest free agent may take a little longer to choose his next team.
It was originally expected that Ilya Kovalchuk wouldn't last long on the open market, as is normally the case when supreme NHL talent is available via free agency. But, here we are, nearly a week into hockey's summer shopping season and a certain Russian sniper has still yet to make a decision on his future.
Heading into free agency it appeared the New Jersey Devils, who acquired Kovalchuk from the Atlanta Thrashers at the last trade deadline, and the Los Angeles Kings had the best chance of signing the five-time 40-goal scorer, but now it seems that leaving the NHL to play back home in Russia is a distinct possibility.
At the present time, smart money says the Devils have the best chance at signing Kovalchuk, but news reports out of Russia are suggesting that SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL is close to locking up the superstar for $9 million a year.
Now, the Kings, who were said to be out of the Kovi sweepstakes earlier this week when he reportedly turned down LA's offer of 13 years, $84 million, are said to be back in the race.
Through all these rumors, we've heard next-to-nothing from the Kovalchuk camp. On Monday, Kovalchuk's North American agent, Jay Grossman, revealed on Twitter that his client was "looking to make a decision on his future today," but eight hours later we were told there would be "no announcement tonight." If that was an elaborate plan by Grossman to increase his Twitter followers, then it worked, but we haven't heard anything of consequence from the agent since.
If I were Kovalchuk, it wouldn't take me long to figure out that the Kings were my best NHL option.
With the Devils, Kovalchuk would maybe have a better chance to win a Stanley Cup next year or two seasons from now, but the Kings and their talented, young roster are set up to compete for titles for the next decade or so. All LA really lacks is a potent sniper, and with 338 goals in 621 career games, there has been no one with more tallies than Kovalchuk since he entered the league with the Thrashers back in 2001-02.
Only Alex Ovechkin is a better pure scorer and considering Kovalchuk's countryman is signed with Washington through 2020-21, we may never see Ovie hit the open market. So, if a goal-scorer is what you covet, there is no better option than Kovalchuk. That being said, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi needs to find a way to sign Kovalchuk without jeopardizing his young team's salary cap situation in the future.
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello also has cap issues to think about when considering signing Kovalchuk. The team will likely need to unload money before the start of the regular season to make the cap situation work.
As for Kovalchuk's KHL option, there is little the North American media can offer on that subject. Kovalchuk's Russian agent suggested earlier this week that his client was certainly leaning towards staying in the NHL, but we can't really know how strongly the winger is considering playing professionally in his home country.
If Kovalchuk winds up playing in the KHL, it would be a huge loss for North American hockey. There are few players who can take over a game offensively like Kovalchuk, and a move to Russia would rob NHL fans of a chance to witness one of the game's greatest talents.
One hopes that Kovalchuk's ultimate decision isn't based primarily on money, but it would be hard to blame him if it was. For all the knocks on his game, like he doesn't play defense or the fact that has never even won a playoff series, Kovalchuk's unique sniping ability allows him to command top dollar and, at 27 years of age, there is no better time to capitalize on his value to a prospective NHL or KHL team.
Kovalchuk's impending decision may have taken a back seat to LeBron's all- consuming search for an NBA destination, but that doesn't make it of any less interest to die-hard hockey fans. I certainly hope Kovi makes a choice soon, but let's pray he doesn't need to take up an hour of prime time TV in order to come that decision.